Time changes things, but Hanoi has managed to effortlessly maintain its lasting allure. Such as the ‘magic’ of ancestor worship: a room kept at home with a small altar in front of which people burn incense, feeble whiskers of smoke – known as ‘invisible stairs’ – that connect the Earth to the heavens. Sometimes the smell reaches the street: these days orange and cinnamon are the fashion. There is still much ‘old’ Vietnam in Hanoi, a place where women lower their eyes if they sense a glance in their direction, yet instead hold their heads high when their country needs them. A unique city museum is dedicated to women, as is a beautiful statue of ‘Mother Vietnam’ by renowned sculptor Nguyen Phu Cuong, which stands some three metres tall.
Although the war with the United States ended 45 years ago, stores are still full of Zippos, the iconic lighters favoured by American troops. Departing Vietnamese soldiers used to leave embroidered handkerchiefs bearing words of love for their girlfriends. The Tam My store in Hang Gai street was famous for them. It now sells sheets and table cloths. The jewel of the Vietnamese capital – the Old Quarter, which the French used to call the Cité Indigène – is a maze of thirty-six streets where artisans ply trades as varied as tombstone carving, tatami making, and silversmithing. The Sofitel Legend Metropole is the most sophisticated of Hanoi’s hotels, where Graham Greene wrote ‘The Quiet American’. Its early 19th century atmosphere evokes the colonial era. But to sip the best coffee visit Giang Café for its ‘egg coffee’ made from egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk and robusta coffee.
Alongside modern skyscrapers ‘old’ Hanoi resists, continuing traditions such as snake wine - whole snakes infused in rice wine or grain alcohol, and considered a natural aphrodisiac. For elegant architecture, see the Temple of Literature, built in the year 1070 as a university dedicated to Confucius, where the names of its best students can still be seen engraved on its stone walls.
Then there is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, housing the remains of the communist former leader. Visits last mere moments and the rules are strict: no disrespectful attire, no photographs, no talking, and hands in your pockets at all times.
But it wasn’t he who chose the path the country is following today, that of a so-called Market Socialism where a section of Vietnam can afford luxury items and ‘made in Italy’ is a big hit. But Hanoi too knows how to proffer its own excellences. Art, for example. At the beginning of the last century, France established a beaux arts tradition that encouraged a cross pollination with local traditions, lacquered works included.
This ushered in a true Vietnamese style as can be appreciated in the city’s various art galleries. The Apricot art gallery is a must. Renowned painter Nguyen Than Binh's female figures wear Ao Dai, the traditional, elegant, yet slightly mischievous, dress. Completely white, worn by high school girls, it is an iconic image of Vietnam.
Food is also mostly a matter of simplicity. Pho, an inexpensive soup of herbs, meat and noodles, can be found everywhere, at any time of day or night. For those seeking nourishment of the soul, a water marionette show - unique in the world - is perfect.
Finally, red is considered a 'lucky' colour, and that extends to red cars. So tradition will meet modernity once again this April, when the Vietnamese will be able to show their passion for the Prancing Horse's own red cars as the country hosts its first-ever Grand Prix.
All photographic and video content of the above article was created prior to the Covid-19 emergency and related Government decrees